The Progress of Women

Women suffragists march for the right to vote during the presidency of  Woodrow Wilson . (Photo credit: )

Women suffragists march for the right to vote during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. (Photo credit:

Progress for women since 1865 has made being a woman in the world today significantly more comfortable and laced with afforded freedoms earned over decades of tumultuous effort. Women’s suffrage began to become a prevalent issue in the latter half of the 19th century, with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) being founded by Susan B. Anthony in 1890 (Bowles, 2011). Significant areas of improvement happened once suffrage gained traction in the early part of the 20th century, and the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 allowed women the right to vote. As the Roaring Twenties introduced society to the New Woman, or the Flapper, and the first and second World Wars saw in increase of women in the workforce. In addition to earlier efforts for civil equality, the Women’s Liberation Movement was another significant push forward for women as was the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the ruling in Roe vs Wade that made abortion legal in 46 states in 1973 (Bowles, 2011). All of those years of fighting for equality and struggling for freedoms regardless of gender have afforded women of today the comforts of political and personal voice in the United States. Recent passing of  “Yes Means Yes” legislation in California to make it necessary to receive affirmative consent prior to sexual acts is an indication that women will continue to work towards greater understanding and equality within American culture. Where women are now is a result of over a century of struggles to reclaim their voices, their rights, and their bodies from a society that would otherwise repress and control them. 

The first tides of the women’s rights movement started in 1848 when the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and subsequently signed by 68 women and 32 men (Bowles, 2011). In 1872 Susan B. Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote and by 1890 she had founded National American Woman Suffrage Associatioin (NAWSA) and the push for political and social equality for women began in full force (Dow, 1995). 

Susan B. Anthony not only made advancements for women in politics possible with her activism, but also worked to advance women in education and subsequently the workplace (Dow, 1995). As pivotal as Anthony was to the suffrage era, activists like Alice Paul increased the intensity of the movement by approaching it in a more militant manner with protests and hunger strikes starting in 1913 and lasting through the Great War years (Bowles, 2011).  Just when the suffrage movement was gaining the most traction politically the United States entered into the first World War and suffragettes and the NAWSA utilized the opportunity to highlight the patriotism of women and prove their rights for full citizenship (Dumenil, 2002). Among the top points of involvement for women in World War I that are cited among the most important contributions to the war were women-at-arms, along with women who participated in the war efforts with physician and nursing services (Klanovicz, 2010). Though they were not afforded military rank or honors, women served in the military and that service marked a significant turning point for women in the years to come (Bowles, 2011). 

In non-military roles women were taking up jobs that had previously been held by men, but whom could no longer fill the post themselves due to their service in World War I (Anderson, 1944). As invaluable as women proved to be during the Great War, they were displaced when men came home from war and took their jobs back (Anderson, 1944). Following end of the war women faced hardships and injustices in their displacement which resulted in the formation of the Woman in Industry Service, which later became the Women's Bureau, to “promote the effective utilization of women” (Anderson, pp. 238, 1944).

In 1920 the 19th Amendment, or the Suffrage Amendment, was passed and allowed women the freedom to vote (Bowels, 2011). The process within the government was a slow one and took decades to reach a conclusion with part of the problem being the government's lack of ability to clarify if the issue should be a state or a federal one (Keremidchieva, 2013). Part of the jurisdictional battle seemed to focus on the states' control over which groups were allotted the right to vote (Keremidchieva, 2013). The argument did not simply cover enfranchisement for women, but for all minority groups, which included immigrants (Keremidchieva, 2013). It is important to note that, regardless of progress and victory up to this point, the passing of this new Amendment did not necessarily entitle women to equality socially, but only in moderate terms politically (Keremidchieva, 2013). With the passing of the 19th Amendment women gained a sense of enfranchisement and liberation that was obvious during the Roaring Twenties in the form of the New Woman, or as they were more popularly referred to, Flappers (Bowles, 2011). These women seriously upset the social construct that had existed for as long as women themselves, it seems. The sense of empowerment and liberation was obvious in the styles that were prevalent during that era: scantily clad compared to more refined generations with no corsets, petticoats, or bras (Bliven, 2013). Some reasons cited for this drastic change in fashion and cultural attitude was the newly found sense of independence that came from being able to vote and make a living in combination with a desire, as women, to be seen as more than what had previously been the expectation of femininity (Bliven, 2013).

The sense of celebration that engulfed the 1920's toned down as the world again faced war, but women took this added opportunity to again prove their status and worth both politically and socially during World War II. As was similar to Word War I, women were recruited by the government to fill roles that men could not fill due to their service in the military (Anderson, 1944). Many believed that women would return to the home and continue in their roles as wives and mothers once the war ended, but there were spreading suspicions that women were going to use their experiences of work and service during World War II to the advancement of the interests of women (Anderson, 1944). 

Over the course of the war women were still actively working to advance their political and social interests of equality, such as the organisation of the Women's Centennial Congress in November of 1940 whose purpose was to “look backward over achievements won, look outward at discriminations still existing, look forward to the emphases imperative for the advancement of mankind” (Anderson, pp. 238, 1944). Through the 1950's the ratio of women to men of marrying age shifted and a dramatic decrease in compensation for women to hold the traditional roles of wife and mother led up to Women's Liberation Movement that began in 1960 with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mistique (Heer & Grossbard-Shechtman, 1981). From 1960 to 1975 there were major shifts in gender roles including an increase in contraceptive technology and use, a decrease in marriage and childbearing, and increase percentages of women experiencing intercourse outside of marriage (Heer & Grossbard-Shechtman, 1981). 

The Women's Liberation Movement did a lot to address issues of not just traditional gender roles and expectations, but also worked to improve equality for women in other areas as well. Though the percentages of women increasing their educations during the Women's Liberation era was not significant, more married women were entering the workforce and maintaining employment with an increase of 25.3% between 1960 and 1975  (Heer & Grossbard-Shechtman, 1981). 

During the years of the Women's Liberation Movement  there were major pieces of federal legislation that advanced the cause of women significantly. Two of the most significant rulings for women were the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Roe v Wade just ten years later in 1973. While the Equal Pay Act of 1963 impacted women financially and in the employment arena, the ruling on Roe v Wade opened up the possibilities of women to gain more freedom regarding their bodies. 

Essentially the Equal Pay Act of 1963 provided protection for women by requiring equal pay for equal work, but it set a precedent that lead to amendments to this act as well as additional legislation such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that provided protection for employment regardless of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 that protected employed individuals over 40 years of age (Moran, 1970).



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Bruce Bliven, “Flapper Jane” (May 8, 2013): bliven-interviews-flapper

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Kelderman, E. (2014). What california's new sexual-consent law means for its colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Retrieved from accountid=32521

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Klanovicz, L. F. (2010). Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War. Canadian Journal Of History, 45(2), 409-411.

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Lilith GearhartComment